This piece was first published last March. Stay tuned for “PART 2: The Community & the Beer” to be published on Saturday.
Part 1: The Philosophy and the Beer
If you travel to Red Hook, Brooklyn, you’ll find yourself in a half-industrial, post-nautical neighborhood teetering on the edge of urban revival. You can smell the saltwater from the window of any repurposed loft. On the sidewalk you’ll find rusty seafaring detritus– who knows if it’s decoration or scrap? Atop various warehouses sits the famous nautical star representing a compass, charting a course through Brooklyn like historical breadcrumbs scattered throughout an urban odyssey.
But one such star – atop a warehouse at Dwight and Van Dyke – is a little different. It’s six-sided, instead of the traditional five. The star sits above an Oz-like bright green door, looming with some peculiar secret that’s shaping the tenor of Brooklyn and quickly trickling out to America at large. Behind that bright green door is a culture factory. Quite literally, but more mysteriously, it’s a place that makes culture.
Sixpoint Craft Ales was founded in 2004 by Shane Welch, an avid homebrewer and Brooklynite originally from Wisconsin with a penchant for science and a fascination with all things that grow. Like Apple and Whole Foods, Sixpoint’s beginnings were humble. Before their boutique brewery in Red Hook, it all started in a basement, where Welch took a ‘mad scientist’ approach to the great American pastime of homebrewing, a philosophy that would spark the boom of a company that is now struggling to keep up with its demand.
In 2005, Sixpoint produced 1,800 barrels of beer. In 2012, they plan to produce 30,000. Distribution that was once limited to New York City and the Tri-State area is now reaching all of the Northeast, as far south as Virginia, and as far west as Indiana. Part of this growth was due to the 2011 release of Sixpoint beer in 16 oz. cans – or as they call them, “nanokegs.” Over the last few years, the brewery’s reputation as a staple of the Brooklyn cultural renaissance has prompted national acclaim.
The company’s slogan is ‘beer is culture’, a vision that Welch argues has been the cornerstone of Sixpoint’s success. “‘Beer is culture’ is a distillation of everything we try to project,” Welch told me, as he walked down a bustling Church Street in Burlington, Vermont where he was traveling on business. For Welch, ‘beer is culture’ itself contains a breadth of meanings, but of the most immediate, are its historical, linguistic, and literal connotations. As Welch explains:
“Prior to civilization, prior to amazing cities like New York, we were hunter gatherers. [Humanity] had a nomadic existence. But then an amazing innovation occurred, and that was agriculture. So when we could control our food supply, that’s when we settled down and began to build cities. The very first crops that human societies grew were cereal grains. So the very first foods that people were eating were fermented cereal grains. Sometimes it was a crude porridge and sometimes it was an actual drink [beer]. The reason why all that’s important is that it allowed [economic] specialization to occur… so every person then has a comparative advantage. And before you know it, you have a society of people who specialize in amazing things and you have this massive proliferation of culture. This is what transitioned the human race out of nomadic herdsmen into city-dwellers. So the origin of all that goes back to beer.”
And as for the linguistic and literal connotations, “The word ‘culture’ comes from the Latin word cultura which means ‘to farm.’ So, you talk about someone’s culture you were talking about what they were growing, what were they cultivating. In this case it’s beer. But you can even take it one step further,” he said, now with a quiet and contagious enthusiasm. “When you are growing beer, when you are producing beer, you’re using yeast cultures. So when you say ‘beer is culture’… it’s like the depth of that slogan is written into the beer.”
Welch has the unique ability to see both the meta and the micro narratives in all of his work. If you ask him about one of his beers, he’s as likely to tell you about the resin compounds in each hop varietal as he is the holistic and nearly spiritual nature of brewing.
“There’s a karmic relationship that goes on when you make beer. You don’t really make it. Brewers, they prepare a solution. It’s a gastronomic solution, a broth. We pitch a fermenting agent into that, a yeast culture, and that agent turns that broth into beer. We kind of just sit back and let it do its thing.”
You can see and taste Welch’s vision in the beer. Sixpoint brews are wild and raw, playing off a rather fascinating yet little known phenomenon: beer, in its purist, most organic form, is actually alive. Most of Sixpoint’s draft beers are un-filtered, un-pasteurized, and contain live active cultures. In a certain sense, the more alive a beer is, the healthier it is to drink. Beer that still contains yeast cultures has as much probiotic bacteria as yogurt or cheese. It’s an excellent source of B6, a vitamin that helps to prevent the build up of a chemical called homocysteine, which is linked with heart disease. You’ve heard about the same kind of health benefits in red wine, but beer does it thirty percent better.
But the meager health stats aren’t the point. “The point is that it’s part of a holistic life system,” says Welch. “You can’t just extort life for your own personal benefit and not consider the implications. The yeast culture in that beer, you could pitch it in, use it and filter it out and throw it down the drain. Or you could let it stay in the beer. When you let it stay in the beer it’s gonna add a depth of flavor, a probiotic nature in beer, and we just kinda made a bet on what people wanted and thought they might appreciate that and it turns out they did. They appreciated that rawness.”
The result of Sixpoint’s approach has led to a series of beers that defy all style categories. Which is exactly what Welch wants. “I have no interest in recreating classical styles of beer. I appreciate them for what they’re worth, but I’m always interested in the future.” This is not to say that Sixpoint doesn’t pay homage to their heritage (their signature six-point star is a blend of the brewer’s hexagram and the nautical star, a nod to Red Hook’s industrial past). Welch’s problem with style guidelines is that they dictate all of the beer’s specifications; it does away with the randomness of life that beer can contain. This harkens back to the American homebrewer’s approach, which is more aimed at stewarding and fostering the life of a beer, rather than forming it into marketable categories. Any homebrewer or craft brewer will tell you that it’s almost impossible to make the same beer twice. Yeast is too fickle, unique, and alive. There are too many variables when you brew in small batches.
Sweet Action, the brewery’s flagship beer, epitomizes Sixpoint’s technique. Its style is enigmatic, creating a mystique that has led to its popularity. It’s not a pale ale. It’s not a cream ale. It’s something different altogether. But what? You won’t find the answer on their cans, but what you will find is an equal emphasis on educating the drinker and expanding their beer horizons. Instead of a style name, a few brief stats are listed (ounceage, IBU’s, alcohol %, color), and a poetic description:
Ah love is bitter and sweet,
but which is more sweet
the bitterness or the sweetness,
none has spoken it.
“Sweet action is an idea; a concept. It is a simple representation of what makes beer great – the marriage of barley and hops, in a harmonious balance of sweet and bitter.”
Ten years ago, “conceptual beer” would have been thought of as unmarketable, too nontraditional, utterly risky for the common drinker seeking comfort and continuity from their suds. The ceiling Sixpoint set out to shatter was thick. But in the last eight years, craft beer has taken the cultural spotlight, and Sixpoint has reached a brand recognition that is now stretching nationwide.
So is Sixpoint just really good at what they do? Or did they catch a cultural wave at the perfect time?